The Path to a Meaningful Life
"The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness. A life that does this is pregnant with meaning, and if God comes at the end, such a life is sacred."
~Martin E. P. Seligman
Ten years ago I began my journey to earn a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, I've been watching my colleagues diseminate the science of happiness worldwide in a multitude of ways, while I've been at home focusing primarily on my family.
Last Friday, I emerged from my "mom cocoon" to reconnect with classmates at an alumni event. Yes, I've been happy as a SAHM, but I'm slowly shifting into a writing career, so it was exhilarating to be surrounded by like-minded individuals in the world of academia. With my first eBook in hand, I stood up and said,
"I'm back. I'm ready. It's time."
Fueling this resolve to be a change agent of the world was a speech by esteemed psychologist, Marty Seligman, who outlined the evolution of psychology and the future of well-being.
See, Marty (as his students call him) championed a platform he termed positive psychology in 1998, when he became president of the American Psychiatric Association. Psychology as we knew it then was focused solely on fixing "what's wrong." Marty's mission was to initiate the scientific study of what makes a life worth living, and I got swept up in this movement to see the world through a lens of strengths.
I entered the scene in 2008 when there was already a treasure trove of studies validating the reasons one should foster well-being. There are even MORE now, but as a student in the third graduating MAPP class, I witnessed Marty's passionate brainstorming on a quest to summarize the teachings of positive psychology in a digestible way.
Eventually, he created the acronym "PERMA" to explain notion of wellbeing. You can read about his thoughts on Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.
There never was a doubt in my mind PERMA would help me thrive. But what I did NOT predict is that this model for wellbeing would carry me through the hardest experience of my life.
Then again, the decade I've been contemplating the science of happiness has been full of surprises.
No, I didn't envision applying positive psychology to adversity any more than I anticipated motherhood would come knocking on my door the SAME day I completed my coursework.
As the story goes, I was destined to be a mom, experimenting with the applied "A" of my MAPP degree in the trenches of motherhood. Now a seasoned mom of four, I report from a place of humility about my experiment with positive psychology when I say,
"Happiness is really hard work."
Indeed, motherhood is a complicated time to strive for wellbeing, because the gig is as hard as it's joy-filled. In fact, I was still figuring out how to be a flourishing mom when a pot of boiling water came crashing down on my toddler son.
Yes, it took extreme adversity for me to really get it, but the choices I made on the worst day of my motherhood experience drove the point of Marty's teachings home, and then changed the trajectory of my life.
I write to you today as the resilient mom I've become, because I found countless reasons to experience emotions like gratitude and love in a time of fear and trauma. This validates the notion that every moment we experience holds both what is good AND what is bad. We cannot always predict or control what happens to us, but we can always CHOOSE the lens through which we see the world around us.
Then, in the aftermath of adversity, we can define the narrative through which we tell the stories that can and WILL define us. This is the sort of wisdom I gained from positive psychology, and my current state of thriving might contribute to the mounting evidence suggesting this science can inspire a life worth living.
Last week, I was able to extend my gratitude to Marty in person for initiating a movement, welcoming me to his program, and giving me the tools I've needed to survive and to thrive. I've long had an urge to fulfill the mission he suggested on my first day as a student in his program was a calling. Back then, Marty inspired me to think that some how, some way, I could transform from the dancer/beauty queen I was into the author and motivational speaker I dreamed of becoming.
Since settling back into my routine of cooking, carpooling, changing diapers, and diffusing tantrums, I must report that the land of motherhood looks different after my brief time away.
Or maybe I'm different for suddenly I see HOW I can use my strengths to forward the knowledge, power, and goodness of positive psychology in the world. It appears I'm pregnant with meaning and transforming into that woman I dreamed I could be with every word I write in a formal book proposal that's my current project.
I intend to bring the science of happiness to moms in a book that blends theory with my experience. For now, you can read about my journey from fear to strength by subscribing below to get my FREE eBook, On Resilience & Motherhood.
Then, if I can leave you with a small but powerful intervention of positive psychology, it's to practice gratitude. I've reached for this positive emotion in the most difficult moments of my life and it never fails to sustain me.
That's why today, on an ordinary day when life is nothing short of amazing, I'm manifesting my gratitude into words. I KNOW the act of writing gratitude will enhance my well-being so I'm compelled to list my blessings:
I feel extraordinarily blessed to be flourishing as a mom who is raising four thriving kids and has a clear vision of her life's purpose.
I can trace the path of this meaningful life back to Marty Seligman, and the privilege I had to be his student. This connection allows me to model a way you can make this exercise even more powerful, by sharing the words I'll now email directly to him:
Marty, ten years later the seed of hope you planted in my heart that positive psychology is my calling has sprouted. Now, I'm imagining a future where I follow through with the promise I'm making today; my mission is to disseminate the science of positive psychology in motherhood - one day, one word, one mom at a time.